‘Poor’ handling of FOI requests by Government spurs call for independent audit
29 April 2022
Greater transparency is needed from the Government to restore trust in its handling of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, concludes the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The inquiry into the Cabinet Office FOI Clearing House, a body which coordinates responses to certain FOI requests across Government, received evidence of ‘poor’ FOI administration by Government which appears to be ‘inconsistent with the spirit and principles’ of FOI law.
- Read the full report (HTML)
- Read the full report (PDF)
- Read the report summary
- Find all publications related to this inquiry, including oral and written evidence
In the report published today, MPs urge the Cabinet Office to accept the Information Commissioner’s offer of an audit of the Clearing House, concluding that the Government’s decision to reject the offer last year was ‘misjudged’. The report is critical of the Cabinet Office’s failure to deliver on its promise of an internal review of the Clearing House which, despite being announced in August 2021, has yet to begin. It calls the delay ‘unacceptable’.
The probe finds the Government lacks a proactive approach that advocates for the FOI Act more generally and calls for greater leadership from the Cabinet Office as the sponsor department for the Act and FOI policy. It recommends the Government revisit its decision to exempt the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) from the scope of the FOI Act highlighting the exemption as ‘a slide away from transparency being viewed as helpful towards a view that it is a hindrance’ which is a ‘concerning trend’.
Chair of PACAC William Wragg MP said:
“Our Freedom of Information laws are a crucial part of our democracy, allowing citizens to hold Government to account.
“As FOI policy owner and coordinating department, the Cabinet Office should be championing transparency across government, but its substandard FOI handling and failure to provide basic information about the working of the coordinating body has had the opposite effect.
“An internal review alone won’t be sufficient to restore trust. The Government must go further and allow for an independent audit of its practices such as the one offered by the Information Commissioner. The Cabinet Office has dragged its feet for too long on this issue and must act now to remove suspicion around the Clearing House, improve compliance with FOI laws and regain public confidence.”
Key findings and recommendations
- Cabinet Office should accept Information Commissioner’s offer of an audit to reassure the public it is complying with FOI law
- Cabinet Office should improve the tone from the top and drive stronger FOI culture through proactive leadership
- Government should revisit decision to exempt ARIA from the scope of FOI Act
- Government must address concerns about the use of WhatsApp and other private messaging systems to evade the FOI Act
- Government should consider how to better align departmental policy responsibility and financial responsibility for the Information Commissioner's Office's Freedom of Information work
- Inquiry: The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House
- Public Administration and Consitutional Affairs Committee
Image credit: PA